As the common saying goes, “attitude is everything.” It is what makes the difference in how hospitable a congregation is, how externally-focused it is, its priority for spiritual growth, its openness to change and so on. The determining factor in congregational flourishing often comes down to attitudes. Change initiatives can grind to a halt when prevailing attitudes impede movement, frequently leaving demoralized leaders with the belief that attitudes don’t change. But attitudes can change, and leaders who have an understanding of the anatomy of an attitude can help congregants reconsider and revise them.

An attitude is made up of three components: a belief, an evaluation, and a strength. At the core of an attitude is a belief about something (what is called the attitude’s object). Let’s imagine a person’s attitude towards contemporary worship music (the object). A person might believe this music is loud, simplistic and monotonous. Next, what really empowers an attitude is the evaluation one makes of the belief: that it is good or bad, true or false, right or wrong. In our example our worshiper might evaluate her belief about contemporary worship music as “I dislike it.” Finally, every evaluation has a strength. Our congregant may simply not prefer contemporary music or she might really hate it. Leaders encourage attitude change by helping congregants review and revise any of an attitude’s components: the belief, the evaluation or the strength.

For our imaginary congregant, introduce her to contemporary worship songs that are not loud, simplistic or monotonous, such as “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend. A repeated experience of singing contemporary worship songs that are clearly different from one’s belief about this style of music provides the ground for reconsidering and revising beliefs. A change in belief, in turn, can encourage a change in the evaluation made of the belief (“I like this music!”) and even the strength of the evaluation (“I really like this music!”).

The most effective way to help people change their attitudes is by helping people reflect on and revise the beliefs at the center of an attitude. Consequently, discovering the core beliefs of a congregation’s attitudes is the vital first step for leaders to take. These core beliefs can be quite fixed but they can also be surprisingly easy to change. For example, I once worked with a church whose congregants were all too aware that their membership was aging and declining (the object of an attitude). They thought there was nothing they could do about it (the belief) and consequently they felt hopeless (the evaluation). Their attitude disempowered any possible motivation to deal with their situation. I worked with a group of them one evening to help them name the actual beliefs underlying their attitude. During the discussion one person said what many believed, “The problem is that there are no young families in our neighborhood. We all moved here and built this church when this neighborhood was brand new. But the children of the neighborhood have grown and moved out. The area is now filled with seniors and empty-nesters. There is no next-generation for our church.” As I thought about this belief I recalled something I had noticed. “Well, if this is true,” I said, “then why does the public school have six portable classrooms in the back playfield?” I was holding up some evidence that called their belief into question. After a moment of quiet reflection the people in the room agreed that—yes indeed!—the school had been expanded. “Maybe there are young families in our neighborhood” they said. This led the congregation to look at the local census data and talk to a realtor. The congregation learned that those retired empty-nesters were now selling their houses and downsizing, and the next generation of homeowners was moving into the neighborhood. In fact, the reputation of the school made the neighborhood highly appealing to young families. A very fixed belief (“there are no young families in our neighborhood, so there is nothing we can do to improve our future”) was challenged by very simple evidence. The new belief changed their evaluation, making them more hopeful. The new attitude, in turn, motivated them to engage young families in the neighborhood and meet their needs.

It is not always this easy. Some congregational attitudes can seem impervious to change. But while the beliefs and evaluation of an attitude may appear fixed, the strength of an attitude can often change. The easiest way to make this happen is to help people consider a few of their attitudes in relationship to each other. Each of us has more attitudes about more things that we could ever imagine, but at any one time we may only be aware of one or a few of them. Leaders can help congregants revise the strength of an attitude by helping them reconsider the relative importance of a few attitudes that are important to them.

For example, a congregation I worked with recently is typical of many mainline churches. An evaluative survey we conducted showed that the congregation was very inwardly focused, giving the highest priority to enjoying and sustaining their sense of community as a church. As for their future priorities, they desired a modest shift towards an external focus. As part of my presentation of the survey results I helped congregants see three things: how their internal focus was not serving them in a few significant ways, how the congregation was already leaning into the missional church model, and the potential benefits of embracing more wholeheartedly the missional perspective. The workshop did not change congregant’s positive and strong attitudes on the meaning and value of community life, nor was that the goal of the workshop. Instead, the day helped people reconsider the relative priorities of two of their existing attitudes: an attitude that values the benefits of an internal focus and an attitude that values the benefits of an external focus. Today this congregation is still enjoying a fulfilling community life, but now it is also proactively exploring how to become more missional.

A century ago the renowned psychologist William James wrote, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.” The same can be said of churches. The greatest gift a leader can give a congregation is to encourage attitude change that has the potential to bring greater life, fulfillment and faithfulness for congregants. The work of leadership, more often than not, begins with helping people reconsider and revise attitudes.

Dr. Peter Coutts is the author of Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future (Alban, 2013). 

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